By HANK KURZ, Jr.
BLACKSBURG, Va. —
When James Johnson took over as Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball coach after last season, he looked at his roster with only eight scholarship players and stuck with his gut: he wants the Hokies to run.
“I think it plays to the strength of our team,” Johnson, 40, said after a recent scrimmage. “We’ve got some guys that are athletic and can get out in space and have some more opportunities to score.”
Johnson’s upbeat approach has leaders like Erick Green and Jarell Eddie believing, too, and with the Hokies expected to be undermanned and struggle this season, it’s had a galvanizing effect on the team.
“This is his first year and when I sit down with my teammates and we talk, we believe we can get it done,” said Green, who considered transferring until Johnson got the job. “As a leader, I feel obligated. I’m gonna do whatever it takes to make sure this man has a great year and these guys are on board.”
Johnson replaced Seth Greenberg, who was fired after nine seasons that included just one NCAA tournament berth. Johnson spent the last five seasons as an assistant under Greenberg, but had decided to make a lateral move to Clemson when athletic director Jim Weaver decided the wrong man was leaving.
The change cost them one recruit, and came after Dorian Finney-Smith, who started every game as a freshman forward last season, announced he was leaving the program. Finney-Smith is now at Florida.
What remains, though, looks more than capable of producing success in Green’s eyes.
“I think as long as we stay healthy and stay out of foul trouble, we can hang with anybody,” the senior said. “We got some great shooters. We got some good post players. ... I think we got all the pieces to make it happen, but we just gotta stay healthy and keep working hard and get better every day.”
Much of what the Hokies do will revolve around Green, who led them with a 15.6-point average last season. The combination guard also led in assists and steals while averaging 35 minutes per game.
His distribution skills will help him force teams to pay attentions to shooters like Eddie, sophomore Robert Brown and freshman Marshall Wood, while also getting powerful Cadarian Raines involved inside.
Eddie led the team with 54 3-pointers last season and welcomes an increased role.
“That’s something I look forward to,” the junior said. “I came to Virginia Tech to be a good player and this year my team really needs me to be a good player, so that’s what I’m going to try to be.”
Brown was largely a long-range specialist last season, finishing second on the team with 113 3-point attempts — but he made only 32 percent. He expects Johnson’s “Let them play” offensive approach will help everyone.
“It’s nice,” he said. “It lets us create our own identity.”
The Hokies hope that identity becomes one that surprises some people.
“People don’t expect anything,” Green said. The Hokies were picked to finish 11th in the ACC. “People are counting us out. So we’re gonna have a chip on our shoulder to prove people wrong.”
Johnson has high expectations for Raines, a hulking 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward whose first two seasons have been marked by foot problems and foul trouble. Now that he’s finally healthy, Raines is more confident in taking the ball inside, and has demonstrated an ability to score with either hand.
“You’re seeing a guy now who’s confident with his back to the basket, confident on the offensive end, which I think is carrying over from last season,” Johnson said. Raines averaged 11 points over the last seven games and had a career-best 16 against Duke, and he’d never had more than 12 before closing well.
“It’s very important that we keep him on the floor,” Johnson said.
Wood, 6-8 and 210 pounds, has shown a knack for rebounding in practice, Johnson said, and will be counted on to help out inside as a power forward, while also stepping out behind the arc to score.
“He’s definitely big on defense,” Wood said of the new coach. “I mean, you’re not going to play any defense, you’re not going to get on the court. ... Defense is the biggest thing on the team probably.”